Echoes of Eliot and Conrad in Levi’s Hollow Men

“This is the way the world ends (x3)… not with a bang but a whimper.” There’s something     profoundly unsettling in the notion that something as dramatic as the end of the world could manifest as a fizzle. Some horrors are so inexplicable as to transcend experience and expression rendering them, perversely, almost anti-climactic. “This is hell,” writes Levi, “and we wait for something which will certainly be terrible, and nothing happens and nothing continues to happen” (p. 22). Eliot’s inspiration (if that’s the right way to describe his fixation with moral paralysis) is at least partly attributable to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, whose central character, Kurtz, appears in the opening line of “The Hollow Men,” and comes to symbolize a genocidal imperial policy in African. There are numerous common points between Conrad, Eliot, and Levi, and Dante’s Inferno is an explicit anchoring point for each text.

Conrad offers a template for the genre of genocide, conveying “the horror” of mass killing not in screaming indignation but in clinical, detached, almost banal observation. Despite the centrality of Kurtz (or rather the idea of Kurtz) the point is that there is no single or comprehensible cause for industrial-scale murder. Rather it is an army of book-keepers, accountants, steam-boat pilots, brick-makers, surveyors, pilgrims, rubber sellers, and so forth that spread the “germs of empire.” These hollow men… like the “papier-mache mephistopholes”… might be called genocidal nerds. For Levi these are the capos, the doctors, the camp administrators, or petty functionaries whose dedication to an unquestioned individual “duty” combines, with obscene banality, to create a holocaust. Like Conrad’s novella, the terror of Levi’s testament resides in its inability to name “the horror” — to identify the monster that haunts our imagination. If only something would go bump in the night… if only a monster would show its face and emerge from behind the barbed wire perimeter of the bizarrely ordinary world of industrial murder. The “Belgian Free State,” and “Arbeit Mach Frei,” resonate today as abominable lies uttered by and for “hollow men” and “sordid puppets.”


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